iPhone Game Review Agglomeration Pt. 1

It’s been a while since I did a post about iPhone games I’ve played, so I figured I’d re-up that tradition. These are more notes than reviews, but you know the drill. As you will notice, I have a lot more likes than dislikes compared to the previous review post. Either the quality on the App Store is getting better or the quantity is so massive that I can find the games that fit my niche much easier.

Baseball Superstars 2009 by Gamevil

I talked about Baseball Superstars in this post fairly extensively. Nothing has changed. The game is still an incredible value and pretty much the best thing out there if you are looking for portable ball. It was clearly made as a mobile game and the gameplay reflects that as it requires very binary (press/no-press) controls. The computer can be set to take over the controls that require a bit more precision like fielding.

Zenonia by Gamevil

I was so impressed by Baseball Superstars that I bought Zenonia without a free trial. Zenonia is a sprite-based action-RPG in the vein of Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past and it also shares some similarities with Brave Fencer Musashi. This is a lofty pedigree. And while it shares mechanics with and shares visual styles with these great titles, it falls short of warranting a recommendation because of poor controls.

Again, this game was obviously meant to be played on a mobile device as it would be excellent on a normal handset. Why? A normal handset has tactile feedback when you press a button. By sense of touch, I can tell if I am pressing up/down/left/right. On the iPhone, this isn’t the case. The gray area between up and up-left for example has to be guessed and is millimeters in size. And when you are playing a game that requires twitch dodging, it really isn’t feasible. It’s frustrating even having to walk up to a piece of treasure and pick it up without running past it or changing direction. Imagine fighting a boss.

The game has fantastic writing (for a foreign game to make great jokes regarding something as esoteric as starting an Amway business is a high feat) but I just couldn’t get too deep into it because of the feeling of being out of control. A 1.1 update dropped recently and had in the notes “Fixes to the D-Pad”, which gave me hope. However, the “fix” was to slightly adjust the position of the D-Pad. If they can fix the controls in a future update, this will likely gain a huge amount of my attention as the game looks to be deep and interesting.

The demo of the Mega Man 2 iPhone port shows an example of an iPhone game that does a better job at implementing a D-Pad in a game that requires precision. It surely isn’t perfect and only approximates the precision of using a D-Pad, but it is more serviceable to the cause.

Phase 10 by Magmic Games

Phase 10 is a relatively older family card game in the vein of Uno and Rummy. I was recently introduced to it by a friend of my girlfriend’s. Like Uno, it is fairly mindless, but has a modicum of tactics. On a whim, I searched to see if there was an iPhone version and there was. This is a faithful port of the Phase 10 experience, but lacks much in the way of bells and whistles. You can pass-and-play with friends, but there is nothing for single-players besides playing with the somewhat stupid AI. There are no achievements or unique challenges. Yet for being quite usable and a faithful reproduction it is competent and I can recommend it if and only if you already enjoy the card game.

Because I liked Phase 10 so much but saw huge design flaws with it (games play out mostly the same way, shallow tactics, loooooong matches), I designed my own card game inspired by this that fixes these problems while keeping the spirit of the game the same. More on this in a later post.

Trivial Pursuit by Electronic Arts

There really aren’t many good trivia games out there. Is that because Trivial Pursuit fills the niche so fully that no one else need come along? You Don’t Know Jack did great for a while but scaled poorly. Regardless, when it comes to professional-style trivia games, this is the only one on the market.

Luckily, it is quite good. It contains not only the traditional way to play versus either a CPU opponent (what fun is that? Flip a coin to see if they get the question?) but also Pass-n-Play and what they call “Pursuit Mode” which is a single-player mode where you try to make your token reach the end of linear levels in the least number of turns. There is a Wi-Fi game mode, but I don’t know anyone else with the game so I cannot comment.

One gripe: Often the game will offer up a question where the answers are images, such as “which of these buildings houses the British Parliament?” That’s well and good on a web browser on a PC, but on a phone, these images are something like 125 pixels square. The salient feature of that image may only take up half the image, so you are squinting at a 60px square area. For some questions it is next to impossible to really tell what they are showing as the resolution is far too small.

Peggle by Popcap

It’s Peggle people, geeze. This version takes some lessons from the DS version (the scroll wheel) but luckily benefits from the iPhone’s superior resolution. All the depth of the PC version is here including challenges, duels, &c., If you tried it on the PC, XBLA, DS, PSP, and so on and so forth, you should already know if you like the gameplay and presentation. All I add to the analysis is that the gameplay remains sound on the iPhone’s touch screen.

Killer Sudoku by WhiteNile Systems

By 2006, I was quite bored with sudoku. Luckily, the Japanese were about a hundred steps ahead of us and the good puzzlemakers at Nikoli were churning out books of other interesting logic puzzles in the same vein. One of the puzzles in this vein (and I don’t know if it originated at Nikoli or not) was Killer Sudoku. The “Killer” in the variant name doesn’t refer to the difficulty, but is simply a rather poor name for a completely different puzzle.

The similarities between Killer and Traditional is the 3×3 latin squares setup. But instead of receiving a number of squares pre-filled you receive no squares pre-filled. Instead, each cell is part of a “group” and you receive the sum of that group. So this allows you to solve the puzzle with different strategies. For instance, a 3×3 square has to contain all the digits 1-9, so the sum must be 45. Same goes for rows and columns. So if you know the values of a row except for one totals, say, 38, then you know the last number is a 7.

This phone version is a very competent puzzle generator. The input is slighly laggy, but who cares in a lax puzzle game? There is a tool where you can drag a rectangle (see image) and automatically calculate the sum of the area of the rectangle from the knowns given. This is useful. Overall, if you like these kinds of puzzles, you will find Killer Sudoku to be a useful time-sink.

Yahtzee Adventures by Electronic Arts

This is how it is done. Yahtzee is generally an uninteresting game. Yes, this game contains the standard one player version or a pass-and-play version of the same, but that is less interesting than what the game does different. There are two variants of Yahtzee new to this game. There is a single-player progression mode (in a Yahtzee game for pete’s sake, hence the ‘Adventures’ part in the title). While Yahtzee doesn’t provide the depth of a Chess or Go, the AI is still non-trivial. And there are achievements! For a game that debuted at $2.99, there is a lot of gameplay and polish. Say what you will about EA’s stranglehold on various licenses. They are doing a much better job providing unique takes on the Hasbro properties than anyone before them.

Now if I could get a Fireball Island game, I’d be set.

Phrase Party by Logan Sease

Many have seen the party game Catch Phrase where one player tries to get another player to say a word or phrase by describing it. It’s essentially what they play on $25,000 Pyramid. Well, this is exactly that. The original icon for this app was the device that comes from the board game, but smartly the developer changed it to prevent lawyers from paratrooping from the sky.

It is feature-bare, the interface is uggo and some of the entries have spelling mistakes. Some are so esoteric as to not make much sense. But it is one of the games that my girlfriend and I play when waiting in line or for dinner at a restaurant. And while it looks amateur, I’ve certainly got my $2 out of it, so I should recommend it, although you could approximate the game by having a long list of nouns or phrases in a Notes file and picking them off randomly.

Gaming Made Me Too

The “Gaming Made Me” series over on Rock Paper Shotgun has been pretty interesting. Also, other game blogs I read have been posting their own takes, so I figured I would throw mine out there as well. The series asks folks to define what games “made us the people we are today”. That’s pretty tough, no?



ZZT

Yet the first one is pretty easy for me. Epic’s (yes, Epic, the studio that now brings you highly-detailed brown things blowing up other highly-detailed brown things) Tim Sweeney came out with this ANSI-based adventure generator in 1991. I probably first came across it in 1993. I found an AOL message board of other kids who made ZZT adventures and I learned quite a bit from them.

This was my first real experience with programming, my first real experience with releasing something creative for anonymous internet types to destroy, my first real experience with making something creative that wasn’t just for me or someone I knew.

By high school, the Internet boom was in its toddlerhood and I forgot about making games because I was going to be the next creator of a something.com and be a billionaire by time I was twenty. Web applications were where it was at. Of course, by time I was in college, all those freshly minted stock certificates were worthless and that’s what drove me back to games. But if it wasn’t for all the fun and learning I had with ZZT, I would have never even considered the industry as a place where a real person could make a living.

In a box somewhere (I think I may know where it is), is a 3.5″ floppy disk containing all of my ZZT adventures. If kids wouldn’t scoff at the graphics, I would say that ZZT should be taught in middle schools to kids interested in math & science. Unlike other “build your own game” software I have tried since, none rivaled ZZT‘s beginning simplicity or potential gradual complexity.



Halo

Yes, it is quite popular to denigrate Halo these days. It is the One Buck Chuck of the elitist gamer world, no?

By the time I was finishing high school, I wasn’t much of a “gamer” in the traditional sense. I’d play things here or there (I had a copy of Max Payne that I played the summer before freshman year of college and thought it was pretty decent) but I didn’t follow the gaming press or anything like that. People were losing their lives to EverQuest and I remember thinking how sad it was that the carefree years of our lives were passing by and people were wasting it clicking rats.

Microsoft came to our campus in Fall of 2001 to recruit for internships. They brought their soon-to-be-released Xbox. It wowed everyone, especially the stills of “Project Ego” (eventually becoming Fable) and “Sneakers” (eventually a Toys-R-Us exclusive that would score a 2.0 from IGN). We got to play Halo before everyone else and that moment in Wean Hall was transcendent for me.

Piles of us nerds played four-player multiplayer until the MS rep pried the Xbox from our cold pasty-white hands. There was trash-talking, their was skill, there was camaraderie. It was gaming, but it wasn’t solitary and sad like the people I watched lose themselves to EverQuest. It was social and dynamic. Suddenly, I was interested in games again.

My parents were super and got me an Xbox for Christmas. My dorm room became the “Halo room”. People on my floor were there when I left for class and there when I came back at night. I met so many people (and still hold these friendships) simply because I was the supplier of Halo. While Halo 2 was by every measure a better game, it doesn’t occupy the same place in my heart. By the time it was released, my freshmen year friends were scattered across campus or at other universities. While I played with some folks over the new “Xbox Live“, it wasn’t the same. It felt solitary again. Halo got me interested in not only the dynamics internal to the game’s systems, but also the dynamics that the game would elicit among the players.



Superman Returns

My first game for EA was NFL Street 2. It was an excellent game, but I can’t claim much credit for that as I was a lowly production weasel there for about three-eighths of the cycle. While I was on the preproduction team for NFL Street 3, I was eventually shifted off that to work on the handheld versions of the Superman game. Superman was to be Tiburon’s next breakthrough in the industry. No longer would we be seen as the “Madden guys”.

I was put on a small group that would design the game and manage the external partner doing the hard work. This EA group just came off the highly underrated Goldeneye: Rogue Agent for the NDS and was small and tightly-knit. It was a great place for me to cut my teeth.

Let’s just say this: everything that could have gone wrong with the project, went wrong.

We weren’t alone. The console team had massive internal and external problems as well. It was essentially a clusterfuck in eight figures. Morale was very low. Here I was, a fresh new game designer thinking that all I had to do was come up with some good ideas, model them to see if they would work and by some fairy pixie magic, we would put them in the game. It can’t happen when your team just can’t handle the work or your licensor demands are unacceptable or your pre-release PSP devkit software is an insufferable piece of shit. At that point, I was still hourly. I had one paycheck that showed a 110.5 hour week. I saved the paystub.

In short, I learned to deal with the harshest of constraints.

And it made me a much better designer. After that, the rest of the team was pretty-much burnt out so I was given the reins to do a short cycle (four months!) GBA Superman game with an external team of three. This became Superman Returns: Fortress of Solitude. While the GBA game got no press and no marketing, I feel it is a great game and it is one of my proudest accomplishments as a designer. And it wouldn’t have been nearly as good if I hadn’t just come through hell and learned all the lessons therein about dealing with constraint.

While the rest of Tiburon still to this day speaks of Superman Returns in the hushest of whispers, I can proudly talk about my time on that team. Very few of the SMR folks remain these days, so it has been all but erased from the company’s culture. I worked on canceled title after canceled title after that as the brass was far too gun shy to fund anything that wasn’t guaranteed to sell fifty million copies (unless it was their idea).

Fun note: Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure would have never happened had it not been for the aftermath of Superman Returns as well. But that’s another story that I’m not privy to tell.


Hopefully, there will be more of these seminal titles in the future for me. Leave comments if you have a list that isn’t your favorite games, but the games that created who you are as a gamer, designer or whatever.

Dominion Card Picker / Randomizer

I spent today dusting off my old PHP and SQL skills. If you play the card game Dominion, you may be well aware that an expansion just released called Dominion: Intrigue that doubles the number of cards. (If you don’t play Dominion, what the hell, man? It’s the best card game since Texas Hold’Em.)

Well, there’s an issue with playing with both the base set of Dominion and the new Intrigue set. To figure out which ten cards to play with, you have to mix cards from different sets together, shuffle, draw and then put those away and get out the piles of the corresponding cards. What a chore.

So I threw together the Dominion Card Picker.

With it, you can choose which sets you want to play with (including the promo cards if you have them) and the script will shoot out a random ten cards for you to play with, including letting you know which set each belongs to so you can dig them out of the correct box.

You can also add constraints to make the selection less lame like requiring a card with an extra buy to be in the ten or at least one card that nets an extra action.

Try it out and let me know if there are bugs or any ideas to improve it.

Party’s Over for XBLA Indies

Getting an XBLA game approved is “massively harder now” says Team 17’s Martyn Brown. Why does this surprise anyone? Microsoft is in the gatekeeping industry. They choose who gets through and who doesn’t. The gatekeepers in the Redmond offices aren’t going to get reemed out if they let junk from SquareEnix get through. It’s SquareEnix, boss! But if they let junk through from indie nobodies then they look stupid. Nobody with a nice Microsoft health plan and 401(k) is going to risk their job over a cool indie title.

Now it is being reported that what was once supposed to be the battlefield for small developers who couldn’t afford the tens of millions to put out a $60 disc is being all but closed to the little guy. The big boys are just adding Live Arcade titles to their portfolio of $60 projects. Microsoft says now that smaller developers should stick to the “community games” channel, the essential back of the bus. Of course, MS will let a few great indie titles through to cement their “indie cred”, look at N+ or Castle Crashers. Yet both of those already had a market. N was a popular game already. The Behemoth already had released Alien Hominid on the service to good numbers.

While developers aren’t making money over there either, Apple’s App Store is an infintely better model. Apple could easily say that they will only let 35 games a year through and focus on “quality”, but instead they leverage the wide variety of apps you can get (“there’s an app for that”). If Microsoft did that, you would see greater niche markets instead of the same old remakes of games you’ve already played time and again. You would see the big players have to compete on quality in addition to just brand recognition. But let’s be honest – the only reason Community Games exists is to push the little guys out of the XBLA market. Maybe Sony will leverage the exodus of developers, but I doubt it. Look for these groups to shutter or focus on MTX games, where teams can actually make money on their investment.

Fuzzy Math

While I’m big on the EA-hating bandwagon over the last six months, I found the text linked in this article to be… how can I say… in poor familiarity with reality.

According to the Complaint,3 EA responded to competition from Take Two by
reducing the price of Madden NFL 2005 from $49.95 to $29.95 for most platforms. After signing the exclusive licenses, EA allegedly raised the price to $49.95 when Madden 06 was released. Subsequent iterations of Madden, including the most current Madden title, were initially priced at $59.95 for most platforms. Based on the prices presented in the Complaint, when TakeTwo was able to compete unhindered, Madden NFL’s competitive price was in the range of $19.95 to $29.95. I assume for this exercise that these would have been Madden’s prices but-for the alleged acts. Thus, for the purpose of this declaration, I assume the overcharge was in the range of 50-66% of actual prices.

Madden‘s competitive price was never between $20-$30. When T2 released their game at $20, this was intended to be a loss leader for them. It was unsustainable and used simply to get Madden players to try their title. Even when T2 released theirs at $20, Madden was released at $40, just $10 less than the standard price of games during that generation. To assume that T2 could keep their price at $20 and continually fund the same level of development as Tiburon to keep competitive is difficult to believe. Even with the significant cost advantage, consumers still chose Madden 2005.

Games for the Xbox 360 and PS3 (with some exceptions) have retailed for $60, a $10 increase over the “equilibrium” price of Xbox/PS2 games. He never takes this into account and instead rides the $19.99 figure into the ground as if Madden would sell for $20 when every other game in the system’s library is selling for $60.

In order to estimate the potential magnitude of damages, I multiply each product’s total units times the average introductory price of the product and the assumed overcharge percentage. If I assume a 50% overcharge and add across all relevant versions of EA’s games, damages would total $701.5 million. Assuming a 66% overcharge would yield damages of roughly $926 million.

Average introductory price? Sports games are heavily discounted after the initial burst of early sales. Why assume the highest selling price was the average selling price unless you were deliberately trying to juice the figures?

To be fair, on page 14, he asks the court for better data on which to do a better analysis. So really, I should just be pissy at GamePolitics for purposefully creating an inflammatory headline to get my eyeballs (and they did). This entire case is likely to be thrown out if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the NFL on their licensing monopoly case, which is also not mentioned in the GamePolitics article.

If it is ruled that EA used monopolistic tactics, the damages should only be in the $10-$20/unit range (rather than $30-$40) and only for the units sold for the Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube consoles as these are the only markets with comparable data for what Take2’s pricing scheme would be. This would be considerably less than the high range quoted in the document.

Also: using vgchartz.com as a source in a legal document? I say this without facetiousness that even Wikipedia would be a better source.

The @TopHatProfessor Thing

Some fan made a quite legit seeming twitter account for Professor Layton and then got outed as hyping it on a forum as the “BEST. VIRAL. MARKETING. EVER.”

The hilarious (to me) part:

Companies spend tens of thousands of dollars to come up with successful viral marketing campaigns that engage their customers and nearly always fail, usually simply pissing off more customers than they bring in. People are usually the most pissed off at the bait-and-switch. Nobody is pissed off that the “Will It Blend” guys are trying to sell blenders. That’s obvious. But who remembers someone pissed off that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t real? They were baited by a supernatural documentary that turned out to be a low-budget horror drama.

This guy creates a viral marketing campaign that is unsanctioned and SUCCESSFUL at interacting with customers (look at the replies) for zero dollars. If he stopped there and never updated again fearing the Nintendo lawyermobile, he would be among the top decile of the history of viral marketeers.

Instead, he tries to leverage the Layton brand that he now had a part in expanding and parlay that into Personal Internet Kudos. Viral marketing succeeds when people don’t realize or care that it is marketing. In other words, he failed exactly how every other viral marketing campaign fails: he made it about himself rather than the audience. He baited and switched.

Also: don’t call yourself a “game journalist” if you are an “aspiring game journalist”. I didn’t call myself a game designer until I had a project on the shelf and a paycheck in the bank.

Also: the guy seems like a real tail-between-his-legs type. If I was him, I’d be working with Nintendo to try and make it official. Where’s the entreprenurial spirit? If I had 3,000 followers in two weeks, I’d be pitching that to Nintendo as an asset. Plus his “OMG don’t ban me plz” attitude in the NeoGAF forum posts is just sad.